Reconsidering Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol Performance

While we must be careful about re-writing any history, Howard Zinn’s work reinforced that history is written by the winners and may mute the voices of the losers/marginalized.  The point is to keep an open but critical mind when considering new versions of history.  The self-published book, The Tylenol Mafia, questions the ethicality and accuracy of Johnson & Johnson’s response to the 1982 Tylenol tamperings.  The author, Scott Bartz, is a former Johnson & Johnson who spent three and half years researching the book.  You can find the bibliography for the book at his promotional web site.  Bartz’s central thesis is that the tampering was not executed at the retail level but occurred somewhere in the supply chain.  The claim moves the responsibility from an external actor to and internal actor.  Still few would hold Johnson & Johnson responsible for the actions of a rouge employee.  The importance of the claim is derived from the implications that Johnson & Johnson worked to cover up this possible link and had the support of the news media and the government.  Here is a sample of the implications PR people are drawing from this claim from Jack O’Dwyer:

“The Tylenol Mafia,” by Scott Bartz, an exposé of Johnson & Johnson’s manipulation of facts surrounding the murder of seven people in the Chicago area in 1982 via Extra Strength Tylenol, will create a big headache for J&J, the media that went along with this ruse, and authorities such as the FBI, local police and the courts that did flawed and even dishonest work.

O’Dwyer also believes those who praise the Tylenol case is an excellent example of crisis management, including many PR textbooks, the New York Times, and PRSA, are embarrassed by the findings of the book.  The argument is that they have bought into the hype and not the reality.  Part of O’Dwyer’s point is that Johnson & Johnson took five days to recall the product after the tampering was discovered.  The point being that five days is not exactly fast, a point other in public relations support.

The debate has begun in PR circles about the book and its implications.  Bob Grupp of the Institute for Public Relations called the book conspiracy theory.  Her is his line:   “If you care to read more about conspiracy theory, you can Google the topic or read Jack’s blog.”  This is an unusual case so I refer you to the various links to draw your own conclusions about Johnson & Johnson’s place in crisis management lore.

Questions to Consider

1.  Where do you stand on Johnson & Johnson’s crisis management praise for the Tylemol case and why?

2.  If credible, how does the “book” harm Johnson & Johnson’s reputation?

3.  Is there a point to be made that PR creates cases that are more mythic than reality?


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